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Poppy issues

Next weekend – I presume entirely by coincidence – the key Sunday’s UK Remembrance Day commemorations will take place on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month and mark the centenary of the symbolic official end of the First World War.

It all seems very fitting.

In recent years there have been a range of different and innovative ways in which the authorities, artists and others associated with WW1 historical research and the British Legion annual ‘poppies sale in aid of charity’ have sought to revitalise their cause – e.g. the Tower of London cascading sea of poppies (this year augmented by candles/torches), silent re-enacters/actors standing at railways stations and this year’s perspex Tommies placed at churchyards and other suitable public places plus, of course, film director Peter Jackson’s project in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum to colourise/update contemporary stills and film sequences to bring them alive to modern audiences … together with a spate of TV documentaries timed to tie in with the centenary of the 1914-18 conflict’s end.

Inevitably, the glut of publicity has also attracted some soul-searching, review and discussion upon war-related issues, not least because of the general perception that the public retains a special and intense relationship with what was originally called the ‘Great War’.

At the time it was regarded as ‘the war to end all wars’ as a result of the sheer scale of its battles, armaments and losses and indeed the fact that – in a practical sense – it was perceived as the first ‘existential’ (total) conflict because it involved the non-combative members of the participating nations’ populations – e.g. women working in factories and in other public service roles to replace the men who were away (conscripted or otherwise) to fight at the Front and overseas – and also attacks by artillery and aircraft upon civilians.

Previously, of course, wars had been an activity largely carried out by volunteer military forces in foreign lands and/or at sea, with home civilians largely uninvolved.

The scope and scale of WW1 was so enormous and far-reaching – including its losses – that many felt something like it would and should never occur again. The human race had stunned and frightened itself – taken a cold shower and/or woken up and smelt the coffee’ if you like – and ‘voices of intelligence and common sense’ around the world were determined there ‘had to be a better way’ (hence the launching of the League of Nations etc.).

Never mind the facts that the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic of 1918/20 killed a far greater number of people than the Great War did – and indeed that the Second World War (which also resulted in higher fatalities than WW1) came along just 21 years later.

My post today is about the different reactions of various factions who hold positions upon WW1.

Amongst those interested in the history of and research into WW1, either in a professional or amateur capacity [and here I must declare a personal interest as a minor member of the latter camp], there seems to be two basic groups: (1) those who are concerned that this year’s centenary commemorations will now result in a gradual tailing-off of public interest in WW1, which development they view as either a regrettable and/or worrying thing; and (2) those who are not worried on that score, or even welcome it, on the basis that this will now leave ‘the experts’ (professional or amateur) to continue their work undistracted by thousands of Johnny-Come-Lately uneducated members of the public who – whilst clearly well-meaning and in one sense welcome in terms of public visibility for WW1 – actually just get in the way and deflect and/or hold up the vital work still to be done.

Next, the poppy-protesters.

These emerge every year and again there are several different versions.

There are those – let us call them ‘Bah-Humbug’-ers – who refuse to get involved in the annual mass-observance orgy of poppy-buying, vaguely on principle.

I have to reveal that I probably qualify for this category myself in the sense that I don’t buy or wear a poppy every year – I reckon I do enough WW1-commemorating of my own already by my annual research and touring of WW1 battlefields and cemeteries on the Continent and even in Gallipoli over the past thirty years and as I plan to do in the future.

There are those that object to poppy-wearing on grounds associated with or influenced by a feeling of pacifism. They feel that the annual tradition of wearing red poppies somehow glorifies war and/or revels in it. That is why some of them – maybe an increasing number every year – choose instead to wear a white poppy.

An offshoot of the above are the intellectuals who, whilst respectful of the intentions of the poppy tradition, argue that there ought now to be a natural end to WW1-wallowing.

Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Evening Standard, was on TV last week peddling this argument – his point was that surely at some point (i.e. now?) there was a time when we ought to stop concentrating upon WW1. Its awfulness was no better or worse than that of Waterloo, the Boer War, WW2 or indeed every other armed conflict before or since.

Then there are those that seek to make some sort of political or other statement by not wearing a poppy – especially when convention appears to demand that they ought to because of their job or public role.

2018’s publicly-announced membership of this group include footballers James McClean of Stoke City [as a Northern Ireland Catholic brought up in Londonderry – sorry ‘Derry’ – he maintains he cannot bring himself to don one and has been lamblasted by some of his own team’s supporters for his stance] and Nemanja Matic of Manchester United [who feels he cannot wear one because of NATO bombing his home town in Serbia when he was a 12 year old boy].

As hinted above, I am personally relaxed about poppy-wearing either way – i.e. to wear, or not to wear. I respect the right of every individual to decide the issue for themselves.

The only slight eyebrow I raise – when I learn people who have decided not to wear one – is when they then appear to court publicity/fame for not doing so. In some cases, of course, the publicity they attract for their decision is inadvertent and unwanted, in which case I feel sorry for them.

But I’m not quite so supportive when they seem to have made a point of broadcasting their decision to the world as if they have somehow risen to a higher moral place than us ordinary mortals and indeed wish to make a virtue signal of it – and then seek to bathe in the publicity this attracts.


About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts